It ruined my Christmas that year. No amount of eggnog or yuletide cheer could alleviate the anxiety that I was experiencing from a deal that had landed on my desk several days before the holiday. What had started as a passive email forward from a partner who was a mentor of mine quickly evolved into a complicated real estate transaction with a demanding client and me, barely a second-year associate, as their primary contact and counsel.
At this point in my career before joining Polsinelli, I was still learning the basics and was not at all equipped to recognize that the deadlines the client was suggesting were impossible. Not to mention that the deal had morphed into a tri-party transaction involving a governmental entity and a subsurface mining operation.
Needless to say, I needed guidance and a lot of supervision. But despite reaching out again and again by email, phone, and in-person visits to the partner’s office, there was little to no oversight.
As with most projects, I had no ability to extricate myself from the situation. This went on for weeks, as the mistakes compounded based on my lack of experience and the client’s artificial deadlines passed and were re-set.
Eventually I reached out to another partner (which feels like the adult version of “tattling”) and pled for help, which he offered, but by that time, I was in deep and the damage had been done. Over 15 years later, I still feel my pulse quicken when I think about how desperate I felt during those months.
As it turns out, the partner who had sent the work to me was overwhelmed with a different deal that had her working around the clock. However, up until this time, that partner had been one of my primary mentors as I navigated the first years as a summer associate and later as a new attorney. Our relationship was irreparably harmed by this single incident that could have been prevented at the outset by simple staffing.
I could no longer assume that I would have the oversight I needed from her, and therefore shied away from projects offered despite the likelihood they likely would have been great learning experiences. Years later when I was faced with the choice of staying with that firm to work with that partner or leave for another opportunity, that singular event weighed heavily on my list of reasons to leave … and I did.
Trust Is an Essential Foundation
As a mentee, what I was looking for in my mentor (and what was lost) was a level of trust. Could I trust that my mentor would be available when I really need them? Could I trust that my mentor would be my advocate to others? Could I trust that my mentor would be an honest adviser regarding career goals and a confidant when I needed advice?
I strongly believe that trust is the foundation of a good mentor/mentee relationship and that a good mentor/mentee relationship fosters loyalty and improves morale for both individuals.
Mentors and mentees who establish a working relationship build a connection that is hard to quantify. Mentees can ask the questions they otherwise guess at, they have a built-in source of work, and are likely exposed to more conversations about the business of law.
Mentors have a trusted colleague to assist on projects, have the chance to introduce clients to a broader team, and develop a better understanding of concepts that they are called upon to teach.
Importantly, a mentee with a strong connection to their mentor typically wants to repeat that relationship when they are given the opportunity to mentor others. And when the recruiters call those mentees with the ever-increasing list of financial incentives and flexible work options, those attorneys with a strong relationship with their mentor are less likely to return the call.
Don’t get me wrong—time spent on developing relationships is precious. I also do not want to imply that a mentor’s role is to alleviate all of the anxiety that less-experienced attorneys often feel. Being in uncomfortable situations and worrying about deadlines, tough clients, and advice are part of the learning experience.
But having a trusted mentor to call with a question or to ask about your workload can certainly go a long way in providing a dose of needed reality for an associate in despair.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Kristin Walker is vice chair of Polsinelli’s Real Estate practice in Denver. She primarily focuses on acquisition and disposition for institutional clients, often involving portfolios of nationwide real estate assets with unique deal structures.